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Erdogan and Turkish Democratic Backsliding

By Stephen Jaber President Recep Erdogan, the current President and former Prime Minister of Turkey, is at the forefront of Turkey’s systematic turn to authoritarian policies of restricting the press and silencing political opponents.[1] Erdogan was once a symbol of Turkey’s pivot to Europe, education reform and medical advances. Now he supports unchecked government corruption, encroaching Islamic fundamentalism, human rights abuses towards the minority Kurdish population, and crackdown on Turkish citizens’’ freedom of assembly.[2] Erdogan must end his increasingly divisive and controversial agenda and move his dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) towards rigid protection of the constitutional rights, a more candid role in Kurdish negotiations and staunch opposition to the excesses of Islamic fundamentalist ideology that is threatening Turkey from within and from the periphery. [3]

The increased hostility to the Turkish regime started in 2013, in reaction to plans to replace a park in Taksim Square.[4] Given the widespread corruption and favoritism in the construction industry in Turkey, many interest groups were not consulted. All the tension cumulated in a series of protests that soon became symbolic of the general dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s regime, including his willingness to give into religious desires for Ottomania – the desire to return to the past, religiously oriented, Ottoman imperial regime.[5] Now, 91 years after the Republic succeeded the Ottoman Empire, many wonder how much damage an authoritarian regime can do to the socialist reforms laid by Mustafa Ataturk, modern Turkey’s  founder and first President.[6] [7]

While violent revolution is certainly not the answer to Turkey’s woes, a serious and considerable reexamining of Turkish politics is in order. Erdogan has set a worrying precedent in his consolidation of power. Indeed, his current authority as President – the head of state in parliamentary democracies and generally a ceremonial role – has begun to subordinate that of the current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutolgu. Datuvolgu, the republic’s former Foreign Minister, who was hand-picked by Erdogan to succeed him as leader of the AKP. [8] This is a problematic situation that does in no way advance the progress of Turkish democratic practice.[9]

The censorship of the press, the Internet – Twitter primarily — and the political opposition has become a particularly vexing issue in Turkey and contributed to the general severity of the protests that began in 2013. These moves are not marks of a strong and legitimate democracy; instead they are symptoms of a regime that is intolerant and afraid. In October, 2014, journalist Erol Ozkoray was convicted of insulting the Prime Minister – Erdogan at the publication in July 2013 – and sentenced to 11 years in prison.[10] This is not a unique case, during the 2013 protests, 153 journalists were injured and 39 were arrested. [11]

Erdogan’s threat to ban of Twitter earlier this year is not a promising sign either. Unsurprisingly, Turkey ranks 154th in the world in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. [12] [13] As Turkey continues to lobby for its ascension to the European Union, it is important to note that not a single country in the EU or Eurozone has banned Twitter. While English PM David Cameron has threatened to ban Twitter and the French have sanctioned Twitter over anti-Semitic posts, neither country has taken any meaningful steps towards the censorship of the platform.[14] [15] Countries that have censored twitter include the authoritarian regimes of Iran, North Korea and China.[16] Furthermore as the UN Declaration specifies that internet access is a fundamental human right and the EU requires its member states afford freedom of the press. Does the Turkish government seriously believe it can be taken seriously and trusted by the international community by setting these dangerous precedents?

The Turks need to ask themselves if they are better off with Erdogan as President. This is a question that yields few answers, especially since Erdogan and the AKP have dominated Turkish politics since 2002. However, some facts can be observed that can give credence to an argument to the contrary. Turkey’s ranking with the Reporters Without Borders — a non-profit organization based in France that promotes freedom of information and the freedom of the press — has fallen from 99 in 2002 to 154 in 2013.[17] Turkish GDP has been growing consistently under the AKP, hovering around 5% — save for 2009 which the economy contracted 2.1 % due to the economic crises.[18] The national poverty rate of Turkey has decreased steadily and primary school enrollment has hit 100% for the past decade — something that Erdogan has actively campaigned for.[19] [20] Indeed early in Erdogan’s rule many Turkish liberals were pleased with the reforms aligned with the European Union’s standards and the liberalized economy; however, this eagerness from the liberals has vanished.[21]

A discussion of the Turkish political culture is necessary. The AKP is a center right party that has received considerable support from the working class. The working class’ support is crucial in understanding Erdogan’s apparent popularity in Turkey. In Turkish politics, there is a negative relationship between income and support for the AKP, the opposite holds true for the AKP’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). As the Gezi Park protests, and by extension the general distaste for the AKP, centers around middle class concerns on the environment and authoritarian leadership, the AKP has shielded itself from considerable audience costs. [22] Meanwhile, the CHP’s efforts to check Erdogan’s authoritarian expansion have been blocked as they lack necessary support from the populace. In all, the issues raised by the Gezi Park protests have failed to cross party lines and ideologies. Those who continue to protest the AKP’s agenda already belong to the CHP and have not had success in galvanizing discontent within the AKP’s ranks.

The Turkish people can, and must confront the AKP’s flagrant violation of their citizen rights. Erdogan and the AKP’s democratic backsliding is an issue that has mounted considerable opposition throughout the country, the question remains of whether the Turkish people will confront the issue directly before it becomes too late. This is the central issue facing the country 91 years after independence. Erdogan intends to move into a new $350 million presidential palace even as local courts ruled the construction illegal. Erdogan’s response, “If you have the power and courage, then come and demolish the building,” symbolizes the path Turkey has taken.[23] Only time will tell if the people intend to do away with Erdogan’s government. As the AKP has taken great lengths to silence opposition leaders and the press, it appears that making a concerted democratic effort to break Erdogan’s regime might be too difficult. How Turkey resolves this issue remains to be seen, but it might be the case that Erdogan is too big to fail.


[1]  RT. “Turkey Undergoing ‘authoritarian Drift’ under Erdogan – HRW.” RT News. September 29, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://rt.com/news/191444-turkey-human-rights-watch/.

[2] Human Rights Watch. “Turkey’s Human Rights Rollback: Recommendations for Reform.” Human Rights Watch. September 29, 2014. Accessed October 27, 2014.http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/turkey0914_ForUpload.pdf.

[3] Turkey, Mullan’Lar. “Haydi Kizlar Okula! The Girls’ Education Campaign in Turkey.” Unicef.org. July 26,. Accessed October 27, 2014. http://www.unicef.org/turkey/pdf/ge6a.pdf.

[4] Arango, Tim, and Ceylan Yeginsu. “Peaceful Protest Over Istanbul Park Turns Violent as Police Crack Down.” The New York Times. May 31, 2013. Accessed November 01, 2014.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/world/europe/police-attack-protesters-in-istanbuls-taksim-square.html?_r=0.

[5] Stein, Aaron. “Protests Show Turks Can’t Tolerate Erdogan Anymore.” The Atlantic. May 31, 2013. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/protests-show-turks-cant-tolerate-erdogan-anymore/276447/.

[6] Kiper, Cinar. “Sultan Erdogan: Turkey’s Rebranding Into the New, Old Ottoman Empire.” The Atlantic. April 05, 2013. Accessed November 01, 2014.http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/sultan-erdogan-turkeys-rebranding-into-the-new-old-ottoman-empire/274724/?single_page=true.

[7] Strauss, Barry. “4 Jarring Signs of Turkey’s Growing Islamization.” The Atlantic. May 31, 2013. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/4-jarring-signs-of-turkeys-growing-islamization/276425/.

[8] Fox News. “Turkey’s Davutoglu Expected to Be a Docile Prime Minister _ with Erdogan Calling the Shots.” Fox News. August 21, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014.http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/08/21/turkey-davutoglu-expected-to-be-docile-prime-minister-with-erdogan-calling/.

[9] Candemir, Yeliz. “New Turkish Cabinet Shows Continuity with Erdogan Legacy.” The Wall Street Journal. August 29, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://online.wsj.com/articles/new-turkish-cabinet-shows-continuity-with-erdogan-legacy-1409312847.

[10] English PEN Staff. “Turkey: Erol Ãzkoray Convicted of Criminal Defamation.” English PEN ICal. October 1, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/turkey-erol-ozkoray-convicted-of-criminal-defamation/.

[11] Greenslade, Roy. “Turkish Journalist Faces Jail for Insulting the Prime Minister.” The Guardian. June 17, 2014. Accessed November 1, 2014. http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theguardian.com%2Fmedia%2Fgreenslade%2F2014%2Fjun%2F17%2Fpress-freedom-turkey.

[12] Tattersall, Nick, and Humyera Pamuk. “Widespread Twitter Outages in Turkey after PM Threatens Ban.” Reuters. March 20, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014.http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/03/20/turkey-twitter-idUKL6N0MH5KQ20140320.

[13] Reporters without Borders. “World Press Freedom Index 2014.” Reporters Without Borders. February 2014. Accessed October 30, 2014. http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php.

[14] The Scotsman. “Riots: David Cameron Threatens Twitter.” The Scotsman. August 12, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/riots-david-cameron-threatens-twitter-shut-down-1-1795253.

[15] Pfanner, Eric, and Somini Sengupta. “In a French Case, a Battle to Unmask Twitter Users.” The New York Times. January 24, 2013. Accessed November 01, 2014.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/technology/twitter-ordered-to-help-reveal-sources-of-anti-semitic-posts.html?_r=0.

[16] Reporters Without Borders. “Turkey, Enemy of the Internet?” Reporters Without Borders. August 28, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://en.rsf.org/turquie-turkey-enemy-of-the-internet-28-08-2014,46856.html.

[17] Reporters Without Borders. “Press Freedom Index 2002.” Reporters Without Borders. October 23, 2002. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://en.rsf.org/spip.php?page=classement&id_rubrique=297.

[18] The World Bank, and World Development Indicators. “GDP Growth (annual %) Turkey.” The World Bank. Accessed November 01, 2014.http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG/countries/1W-TR?display=graph.

[19] The World Bank, and World Development Indicators. “GDP Growth (annual %) Turkey.” The World Bank. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.PRM.ENRR/countries/TR-7E-XT?display=graph

[20] Ibid.

[21] Stein, Aaron. “Protests Show Turks Can’t Tolerate Erdogan Anymore.” The Atlantic. May 31, 2013. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/protests-show-turks-cant-tolerate-erdogan-anymore/276447/.

[22] Tillman, Erik R. “The AKP’s Working Class Support Base Explains Why the Turkish Government Has Managed to Retain Its Popularity during the Country’s Protests.” The London School of Economics and Political Science. May 29, 2014. Accessed November 8, 2014.http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/05/29/the-akps-appeal-to-the-working-class-explains-why-the-turkish-government-has-managed-to-retain-its-support-during-the-countrys-protests/.

[23] Arango, Tim. “Turkish Leader, Using Conflicts, Cements Power.” The New York Times. October 31, 2014. Accessed November 01, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/01/world/europe/erdogan-uses-conflict-to-consolidate-power.html?_r=0.

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